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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Nine fine spaces hidden in Madison
Explorations in our backyard
An aerial view of Picnic Point.
Credit:UW Communications

It takes many years to learn the ins and outs of a city, especially one as multifaceted as Madison. Not only are we situated at the locus of four lakes, but parks and nature preserves were deliberately woven into the fabric of the city as a way to promote a higher standard of life. It's easy to notice the sprawling University of Wisconsin campus, and the seat of Wisconsin's government, with its impressive architecture. But there's no better time than summer to explore Madison's lesser-known locations.

1. The Capitol Observation Deck

The observation deck of the Capitol building is an amazing place, but many residents seem not to know about the best view of the city that's open to the public. The Capitol Building -- the third Wisconsin has had -- was built about a hundred years ago, between 1906 and 1917. The bill was $7.25 million, and that paid for all kinds of excellent architectural implementations in and around the dome. Unsurprisingly, these often concern access to the stunning views from up there -- the dome is more than 200 feet high.

The very best balcony views in the building are at the top and not open to the average schmo, but during summer months, one of them is: the observation deck, about halfway up the building at 92 feet from ground level.

Go beyond the more typical tourist activities, first admiring the building from outside, the only granite dome in the United States; then wandering in to check out the Rotunda from below and taking in the impressive "Resources of Wisconsin" mural by Edwin Blashfield. At the North Hamilton entrance, take the north wing west elevator to the fourth floor. There the echoing gabble of voices fades. Follow the signs to the stairways to get to the sixth floor, with access to the observation deck.

It's a spectacular view of Madison looking down and out, but it also affords a close-up of the finely crafted statuary and exterior of the dome, looking up. It's one of the best spaces in all of Madison.

2. The Washburn Observatory
1401 Observatory Dr.

It's a familiar enough building to UW-Madison campus denizens, perched loftily on a hill, providing a stellar view of Lake Mendota. But did you know you can go into the Washburn Observatory and look at the night sky just as the UW-Madison Astronomy Department does?

From June through August, astronomy graduate students host informal open-house sessions from 9 to 11 p.m. every Wednesday (weather permitting), with the dome open to the star-filled night sky. Follow @Washburn_Obs on Twitter for updates on open-house dates and times.

If you don't want to stargaze but prefer to sunbathe, the lawn in front of the Washburn is one of Madison's finest places to look out over an idyllic scene of gently rolling hills and lapping waves. With a blanket and a book, the world feels like it might not be so scary after all.

3. The orchards at Picnic Point

Picnic Point is one of Madison's most recognizable features from an aerial view. The tip of the peninsula extends north into Lake Mendota, tapering to a stretch so thin you can easily chuck a rock from one side to the other at what locals call "The Narrows," then gets wide again at the base.

Most people hike out to the very tip of the peninsula, where there is a tradition of kissing your sweetie (in 1992, the San Francisco Examiner dubbed it "maybe the most kissing-est spot in North America" as part of a story on the world's best places to smooch).

But there's a little-known orchard hidden in the fat Western base of the peninsula, accessible via paths off the gentle slope on your left as you pass through the stone gates and in toward the Point. The orchards have been producing fruit for well over a hundred years, with tenant farmers tilling the soil for the first quarter of the 20th century. In 1924 Edward Young, a successful lumber magnate, bought the property, constructed the stone archway at the entrance and planted a large apple orchard.

Though the boundaries have diminished as the surrounding wildlife creeps in, the trees still produce fruit. An amble or a picnic in these hidden orchards is remote and romantic.

4. The cliffs with rope swings on Lake Mendota

At the end of a parking lot on Lake Mendota, north of Eagle Heights, a wooden staircase leads down to a tiny beach, then rises, granting access to the Wally Bauman Woods.

Follow the path and keep an eye out for twin trails that shoot off to the right. The first offshoot gives you about a 15-foot run down to a cliff jump in Lake Mendota. The second offshoot path leads to a rope swing, which has, over the years, been hung and rehung with bicycle handlebars for better grip, a secondary rope for hauling the swing back into position, and various other modifications and whole substitutions of parts. The current setup is lean: just a rope to swing from and a bungee cord to climb back up.

Both of these cliff jumps are really dangerous. There are a lot of rocks in the shallows, and it's crucial to get some distance when leaping out over the lake. So jumpers need to be extremely careful.

5. Sunset Point overlook
3902 Regent St.

Secluded in Madison's weirdly beautiful Hoyt Park is an overlook with an unexpectedly beautiful vista. (Part of the park was once a quarry where sandstone was mined and used to construct buildings all over Madison in the mid-20th century.)

This blink-and-you-miss it perch along a winding road running through the park features a nice broad stone wall perfect for watching the sunset. It dates back to the 1930s, when they knew how to make a wall that would last, and functions as a curb against the steep drop-off.

Over to the right there's a stairway leading to a path that takes hikers deeper into the park; opposite the overlook there's a grassy area ideally suited to a picnic basket with ham and gruyere sandwiches and a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio. On a clear day you can see for miles.

6. The best bench in the Arboretum

Arboretum aficionados will argue about the very best bench in the rambling nature preserve, but everyone agrees that there are a few top runners in the contest.

My favorite is here: Park in the visitor center lot and head north past the lilacs and through the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, keeping an eye out for the gentle slope upwards that creates a vista. Once you're headed uphill past the gardens proper, watch for a bench near the top of the slope. Then sit down and kick off your shoes. Dig your toes into the earth, breathe deeply, feel the gentle wind tousle your hair, and look out over Madison's most impressive wildlife preserve. The view is gorgeous, and on a sunny day it feels like paradise.

That's not the best bench, you say? How about the circular stone benches just off the visitor center parking lot? Or how about another council ring altogether...?

7. The Lakeshore Nature Preserve's storyteller circle
1200 Observatory Dr.

Just east of the Elizabeth Waters dormitory on Observatory Drive, a circular bench constructed of limestone slabs is tucked neatly out of sight. In the center of the circle there's another circle, and there's no front or back to this arrangement: All seats in this ring are equal.

There's no record of who designed the original council ring here, rebuilt in the 2000s to honor storyteller and Wisconsin Idea proponent Robert E. Gard. It was the location of an open-air theater in the early 1900s and folklore summer-session classes, according to the Gard Foundation. Noted landscape architect Jens Jensen constructed similar structures and was close to members of the group Friends of Our Native Landscape (that included Aldo Leopold) known to hold meetings at the site in the 1930s. There's a lot of history in this stone circle.

Because no one sits at the head of the table, Jensen called the council ring a "symbol of the spirit of America."

8. The breakwater at Tenney Park 1500 Sherman Ave.

Tenney Park is the near east side's jewel park. It's the home of an elaborate ecosystem of flora and fauna, lovely bridges where locals are often seen with fishing poles, a handy event shelter, a beach and an often-overlooked breakwater.

Jutting into Lake Mendota next to the canal that channels the Yahara River through Tenney Park, it's a perfect place to relax after an invigorating stroll. The breakwater is dotted with benches for a rest, and fish like to cruise around the stone-lined edges. Watching a misty summer sunset from this place of calm is ethereal and uplifting.

9. Thai Pavilion and garden at Olbrich Botanical Gardens
3330 Atwood Ave.

At the turn of the century, the king of Thailand was pleased with the quality of education at the UW-Madison, as evidenced by Thai scholars who studied here and then returned home. So he gave the green light to construct one the few Thai pavilions in the world outside of Thailand.

With this singular authorization, the Thailand chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association arranged the erection of the Olbrich Thai Pavilion. Ensconced within Olbrich Gardens, the pavilion is a pleasing affair, with gentle curves and gold accents.

Breathing in the scent of Olbrich flora while gazing into the pavilion's reflecting pool symbolizes (as it was obviously meant to) the harmonious cultural and intellectual exchanges between this city and far-flung Thailand, and feels like a testament to the way things should be.

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